- - Thursday, April 25, 2013

By C.P. Snow
Harvard University Press, $15.95, 114 pages

When C.P. Snow arrived to lecture at Harvard in 1960, he was riding a wave of fame that followed his talk on “The Two Cultures” at Cambridge University the year before when he pointed out that the intellectual world was becoming increasingly divided between science and the humanities. Although he was only stating plain fact, there’s nothing like doing precisely that to engender controversy, and he was ferociously attacked by the influential Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis and others as a scientific propagandist and enemy of the humanistic.

Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. Snow was amplifying a point made in the 19th century by Matthew Arnold in his essay “Literature and Science.” As one who was both a distinguished scientist (a degree in chemistry and a doctorate in physics) and a man of letters (author of a novel sequence consisting of 11 volumes, among other books), he was firmly rooted in both cultures. Moreover, although Snow had a global perspective, he was addressing an audience in Britain, where education divided early to concentrate on either humanistic or scientific studies.

The Harvard lectures “Science and Government” focus on the rivalry between two British men of science, Sir Henry Tizard and Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), neither of whom attained greatness in terms of research or development but who came to exercise great influence in government at a critical time in their nation’s — and the world’s — history. Snow knew both men, and his portraits of them leap off the page, in all their contrasts: “Tizard English of the English. Lindemann quite un-English”; the former from an impoverished naval family with little money all his life, the latter cosmopolitan in background and education with enormous inherited wealth. Tizard married with children; Lindemann a bachelor and a teetotaler who “was an extreme and cranky vegetarian, who lived largely on the whites of eggs, Port Salut cheese, and olive oil.”

Yet it was Lindemann who became Winston Churchill’s scientific adviser and one of his closest advisers on many matters, surely an illustration of the attraction of opposites, although apparently he was able to tempt him into an occasional brandy. When it came to matters scientific, the word of the man whom Churchill dubbed “the Prof” was law, sometimes for better but sometimes, as Snow makes clear, for worse:

“I shall call it ‘court politics.’ By court politics, I mean attempts to exert power through a man who possesses a concentration of power. The Lindemann-Churchill relation is the purest example possible of court politics. In 1940 Tizard was the most senior scientific adviser in government employment. Lindemann had no official position whatever; he was the confidential friend of Churchill. Before the end of their conversation, Tizard knew that his authority was over. Within three weeks, he had resigned. Churchill and Lindemann really did work together on all scientific decisions and on a good many others, as one mind . Bold men protested to Churchill about Lindemann’s influence and were shown the door . I can still hear someone, a man normally tough and intelligent, saying to me ‘The P.M. and Prof. have decided — and who are we to say them nay?’”

Snow admired both men, but makes no secret of his preference for Tizard, who reasserted his influence when Churchill was out of office. He points to Lindemann’s opposition to radar, which, despite him, became a crucial part of Britain’s war plan and to his advocacy, against analysis by Tizard and others, of strategic bombing as a primary means of defeating Germany. “After the war, Tizard only once said ‘I told you so . No one thinks now that it would have been possible to defeat Germany by bombing alone. The actual effort in manpower and resources that was expended on bombing Germany was greater than the value in manpower of the damage caused.” How these arguments have continued to resonate in conflicts down through our own day.

Reading these lively, erudite, witty, deeply informed lectures is to come away awestruck at the intellectual authority and the unique life experience as scientist, civil servant, academic and Cabinet minister, which made them possible. Snow’s invaluable experiences in the corridors of power (a phrase he actually coined in a novel and which became so widespread that when he chose it as the title of another, he said he was surely entitled to self-plagiarize) inform every page. It is his novelist’s knack for skilled narrative and illumination of character and incident that bring them to sparkling life, for all their undoubtedly weighty subject matter.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.